When hundreds of thousands of Jews began leaving the Soviet Union 20 years ago, American Jews looked at them the way a father beams at his children. Here was a large part of the tribe, almost lost to forced assimilation, now taking their first steps into a Jewish future. That paternalistic feeling only grew, as the immigrants, like all newcomers, needed a lot of help — to get settled, learn a language, navigate the realities of their new lives.
A certain relationship was frozen in place, one that has thawed only very slowly over the intervening two decades. Russian Jews were the junior partner — provided for, supported, shepherded.
But recently in the United States — where this paternalism was most deeply felt — the relationship has shifted dramatically, and in an area always thought to be the dominion of wealthy Americans: Jewish philanthropy.
Rich Russian Jews, bursting with ideas for how they can have an impact on the Jewish world and informed by their unique histories of growing up in the Soviet Union, are making their presence felt in unprecedented ways on the unexpected turf of the United States. They are interested in promoting a type of Jewish identity — which some call peoplehood — that could be seen as a kind of Jewish common denominator, the very basic connection to a global Jewish community that sustained Soviet Jews behind the Iron Curtain for decades, even as religion fell away.
Two philanthropic foundations in particular are infusing millions of dollars into the cash-hungry world of American Jewish organizations in the hopes of promoting their ideas: The NADAV Fund, started by former Russian oil executive Leonid Nevzlin and run by his daughter, Irina, and Genesis Philanthropy Group, a consortium of five Jewish businessmen based in Russia who have combined their funds to support projects that help young Russian Jews regain a sense of Jewish identity. Between these two foundations — each with its own funding priorities — money has poured into starting university Jewish studies departments, organizing summer camps and trips to Israel, and sponsoring large gatherings like the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
“What’s remarkable is that having grown up viewing Russian Jewry as at best a powerless cousin and at worst a segment of our people that was lost to us, we are now beginning to view them as a source of creativity and renaissance in Jewish life,” said Jewish Funders Network Mark Charendoff, who, along with Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, was recently named a senior adviser to the Genesis group. “We say three times a day in our Jewish prayer, ‘Blessed are you who brings the dead back to life.’ I think this is a powerful expression of exactly that, bringing a population that we had thought was lost to us back to life.”
Russian Jews were never disengaged from Jewish philanthropy. Throughout the 1990s, the oligarchs who made money quickly and in great quantities invested in resuscitating Jewish communal life, from establishing the Russian Jewish Congress, to building synagogue and community centers, to sponsoring Chabad-Lubavitch’s missions throughout the former Soviet Union.
But now these Russian Jewish philanthropists are looking outside the bounds of their own community and funding on a larger and less parochial scale. Their massive giving is also having a ripple effect on the American Jewish world, forcing organizations who want to vie for these funds to think creatively about how to get them — in some cases shifting much of their focus to programming for Russian-speaking Jews, which some argue was always lacking.
“What’s interesting about NADAV and Genesis is that they want to give conceptually — not simply that their name will be mentioned, but they really want to give to some concept,” said Natan Sharansky, former dissident and Soviet prisoner and current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The concept, in the case of Genesis, is strengthening the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews in various communities all over the world. Started by Mikhail Fridman, who then recruited four other Moscow-based Jewish businessmen, the group has been on a funding streak in North America since it formed in 2007, providing more than 40 different grants. It gave $10.8 million to Brandeis earlier this year to establish the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian-speaking Jewry and to provide dozens of scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students. Genesis also entered into a five-year partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, promising $4.4 million to open up camps to young people of Russian-Jewish background. And these are only the larger projects.
According to Stan Polovets, a Moscow-based oil executive who is also president and CEO of Genesis, the group has narrowly focused its funding on keeping Russian Jews and their children from assimilating. As a result, it is not Zionist in orientation and avoids religion. In some ways, this attitude represents a backlash to what has constituted outreach to this community in the past, coming mostly from Chabad or as Israel-focused programming.
“We felt that if we focused on funding religious organizations, we would be writing off 95% of our target population,” Polovets said, “because this segment of the Jewish community can be reached most effectively through cultural, intellectual and other secular types of activities.”
Polovets and the other Genesis businessmen prefer to keep a low profile, speaking in North America through prominent advisers.
Until recently, Misha Galperin, head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, was one of these advisers. A child of the Russian-Jewish emigration himself, he sees the role of NADAV and Genesis as unquestionably positive despite what he says are “snickering and unseemly comments about mafia and dishonesty” that trail the philanthropists. He thinks that Russian Jews have a lot to teach American Jews, having emerged from a repressive society that denied them their Jewish identity.
“One of the exciting things about all this is that the concept of Jewish identity and the sorts of things that helped Soviet Jews survive in a sort of post-assimilationist society are the sorts of lessons that are going to be invaluable to the American Jewish community,” Galperin said. “The ideas having to do with Jewish peoplehood — with the importance of culture, literature, art, intellect in the preservation and pursuit of Jewish identity — are something that American Jews can learn from Russian Jews these days.”
The other new players in the American Jewish world are NADAV and its main benefactor, Nevzlin. Though most of Nevzlin’s activities have been confined to Israel until recently — specifically his work on resuscitating Tel Aviv’s Jewish Diaspora Museum with a $6 million gift — he sponsored part of, and served as international chairman of the General Assembly in December, giving a high-profile and well-received speech introducing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Nevzlin’s funding concept is broader than Genesis’s. He is not focused on Russian Jews, per se; in fact, he has distanced himself from Russia, where he was recently convicted in absentia for contract killings during his days running Yukos Oil Company. His goal of promoting Jewish peoplehood, though, is similar to Genesis’s objective in that Nevzlin wants to return a sense of Jewish identity based not necessarily on religion, but on membership in a global community.
His daughter, Irina, who in 2007 left a career in public relations to join her father’s venture, described peoplehood as “belonging to one big Jewish family,” and as “the glue that will keep the Jewish people together.” The foundation, in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, has just started a think tank called the Jewish Peoplehood Hub to help further define the criteria for the types of projects NADAV might fund.
The availability of this new money — particularly when North American Jewish organizations are suffering in the economic crisis — has caused some to adjust their own message and mission in order to receive grants. In NADAV’s case, this means looking for projects that answer the peoplehood call. For Genesis, it’s more concrete: a renewed focus on the Russian-speaking community, one that many say has been neglected since the initial resettlement.
“I think that for the first time in a very long time, with this influx of money from Genesis and Nevzlin’s fund, the minds of Jewish program people are working in an incredibly productive direction,” said Marina Belotserkovsky, director of Russian communications and community outreach at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp has started a whole new program aimed at Russian-speaking youth. Certain Birthright Israel trips are specifically planned to accommodate this community. Brandeis inaugurated a department devoted to Russian-Jewish studies. The Wexner Foundation has established a leadership program specifically geared toward Jews from Russian backgrounds. All these programs have attracted the new funds. And Polovets has said that he has made funding any project contingent on recruiting leaders from the Russian-speaking community to lead them.
As of yet, there has been no backlash from American Jewish leaders, even though the introduction of these Russian-Jewish billionaires into the conversation constitutes a shift in power and focus. Asked if American Jews had reason to be threatened by the Russians’ arrival, Charendoff answered, “If they are, my response would be, threaten me some more.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman